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Monday, October 28, 2013
Did the Nationals miss their window?

By David Schoenfield

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper had surgery this week -- bone chips in his elbow for Strasburg, knee surgery for Harper. The operations are being sold as relatively minor procedures and both are expected to be ready for spring training.

Still, you don't like to hear of any type of surgery for a pitcher and Harper is pretty young to be having knee problems. Remember, he was a catcher until the Nationals drafted him.

I think it's fair to raise two questions here: (1) Will Strasburg and Harper ever reach their potential? (2) Will the Nationals be as good again as they were in 2012?

The first question can't be answered. We simply don't know, but their injuries show that many things can get in the way of greatness.

As to the second question, my immediate thought is, sure, this is still a fairly young team with a strong rotation. After playing mediocre baseball the first four months, they finally righted the ship and went 16-11 in August and 18-9 in September, but it was too late. They finished 86-76, four wins behind the Reds for the second wild card.

Buried in those numbers, however, are some issues. They played the Mets, Phillies and Marlins a lot down the stretch and went a combined 37-20 against those three teams overall. Against the rest of the major leagues they went 49-56. It's entirely possible all three of those teams will be improved in 2014. Against the five National League teams that made the playoffs, the Nationals went 14-31. You don't want to read too much into head-to-head records, but it's safe to say that it's hard to spin 14-31 into a positive.

So how do the Nationals get better in 2014? The bench was awful in 2013 and the bullpen not as lockdown as 2012, but benches and bullpens are unpredictable. The back of the rotation wasn't good in 2013 but maybe Ross Detwiler bounces back and Tanner Roark and/or Taylor Jordan continue to outperform their prospect projections, or the team brings in a free agent starter, one who performs better than Dan Haren did. But Jayson Werth is unlikely to play better in 2014, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman are unlikely to play better and Denard Span's final numbers were actually very Denard Span-like. Maybe Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez prevent a few more runs.

That leaves a full season from Anthony Rendon and improvement from his rookie slash line of .265/.329/.396.

And Strasburg and Harper. More innings from Strasburg. A healthy and better Harper.

The foundation for a good club is still here. But we can no longer assume, like the Nationals did back in September and October of 2012, that this is a powerhouse franchise that is going to be in the playoffs year after year.